Summit Presbyterian Church
January 10, 2010
Baptism of the Lord Sunday
Isaiah 43: 1-7
Luke 15: 21-22
Called By Name
In the opening of the movie "Precious," we hear a school bell ring followed by the voice of the main character: "My name is Claireece Precious Jones." We soon learn that she goes by "Precious," and we also learn that no one who calls her by that name means it. She's not precious to her father, who rapes her and has gotten her pregnant for a second time. She's not precious to her mother, who beats and verbally abuses her. She's not precious to her classmates, who only see someone big, too big to be attractive in their eyes. She's not precious to the principal of her school, who shames her for being pregnant and for being left back so many times (although the principal will also help her). And we know she's not precious to much of the world, the world we also live in, the world that will only see a poor, obese, Black, pregnant, near-illiterate teenager and not care much what happens to her. The pain and power of the movie lies in the longing of Precious to be called by her name - not mocked by it. And the hope and power of the movie comes as Precious finds people who see her for who she is ---- and for whom she becomes precious in their sight.
When Isaiah speaks to the people Israel, they are a people who also long to be called by name and fear they might have lost it. They thought their name was Israel, that they were Yahweh's people, but then they were conquered by the Assyrian and Babylonian armies. The walls of Jerusalem were torn down, the city laid waste, the temple destroyed, the leaders of the people banished. They were hungry and desolate, suffering under Babylonian rule. What had happened? Had God abandoned them? Were they no longer God's people? Or had their God been unable to stand up to the Gods of Egypt and Assyria and Babylon? That would be worse -- for then Yahweh would be a worthless god, hardly the creator of the universe. Or perhaps God was disciplining them - as the prophets insisted - for their oppression of the poor and neglect of the widow or for their idolatry. They didn't know, but they did know that God, who they thought had chosen them to be a blessing to the peoples of the earth, had gone AWOL. Or so it seemed.
But then God, through Isaiah, speaks to them: Do not be afraid. I have called you by name, and you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, for I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the to the north, "Give them up," and to the south, "Do not withhold." And the people did return to Jerusalem: King Cyrus of Persia kicked out the Babylonians; the exiles were allowed to return to Jerusalem, to rebuild their city and their temple.
What a comfort these words of Isaiah must have been, as the people waited for their liberation. How beautiful they are now. They're a declaration of love, an assurance of pardon: a promise to be always with Israel, especially in times of trouble. But in the midst of these promises you may have noticed some troubling words, where God seems to be taking part in some kind of hostage exchange. "Because you are precious in my sight," God says, "I give people in return for you; nations in exchange for your life; I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you." It's not clear what that means. There's no mention of violence against those nations. It seems to be another time when God is saying prepare for a great reversal. And we could understand if long-suffering Israel began to indulge in a few revenge fantasies, imagining that as God's most favored nation, they would now be on top, and that Egypt and Seba and Ethiopia, along with a few others, might be at the bottom. If so, God offers a gentle corrective. Through Isaiah, God says : "bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the ends of the earth -- everyone who is called by my name; whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made." Everyone who God formed and made. That would be everyone. Israel belongs to God, but God does not belong to Israel. God is creator and redeemer of the whole earth.
As Christians and inheritors of God's promises through and with Israel, we believe in the creation and the redemption of the world through Jesus Christ. We believe that God, who promised to gather and redeem all who he formed and made, calls us by name in baptism. Just as God called Israel. Just as God called Jesus by name -- beloved son --in his baptism. Just as God called Mary, that other poor pregnant teenager, and Zaccheus, the rich, short tax collector, and Simon Peter, the unlucky fisherman. In baptism God calls us by name and is with us as we pass through the waters or walk through the fire. Calls us by name, and honors and loves us. We are precious in God's sight.
One challenge of the baptized life is to really believe that. You'd think it would be easy - who doesn't want to believe that they're loved? - but it's not. We hear so many competing messages: from the world around us, our families, the voices in our heads. Those voices may say were too ugly or poor or incompetent, too slow or heavy or weak to be loved, even by God. Clareece Precious Jones heard only such messages, and she says it made her feel worthless. Or maybe those messages tell us that we're pretty hot stuff: successful, smart, handsome; dressing well, money in the bank, winning in sports -- we hear praise from all quarters and start to believe it's real. We hear the world telling us how precious we are, so we don't hear God calling our name. Either way (and most of us hear both messages), we lose sight of who we really are -- precious in God's sight because God made and formed us, not because of anything we've done or anything we haven't.
Another challenge of the baptized life is to remember that although we belong to the God, God does not belong to us . That God is the creator and redeemer of the universe; others are also precious in God's sight.
You'd think that would be easy, but it's not. We get so much satisfaciton in thinking that we're favored. It's so eary to enlist God in our causes, or to think that our comfort and happiness matter above all. It's so easy to ignore, or deny the needs and suffering of others, both near us and far away. So easy to forget that to honor and love God, we need to remember that other people - other creatures - are precious in God's sight, and to act accordingly.
So as we welcome Jamie and Joy into the baptized life, as we remember the baptism of our Lord, and as we remember our own baptisms, we celebrate that God has called us by name: that we are precious in God's sight -- but that we're not the only ones. May we all learn to live into that baptismal call.